Insider Series: How ATC Tracks Planes Flying Over the Ocean

TPG Contributor “Vic Vector” is an air traffic controller at a major ATC facility in the United States. In this installment of our “Insider Series,” he explains the basic principles of separating aircraft and how controllers keep planes apart — despite not being able to see them.

In my very first installment of the Insider Series, I covered the different types of facilities in which air traffic controllers work and how a flight spends the majority of its airborne time under the guidance of controllers that use radar. Fortunately, radar coverage in the contiguous United States is excellent, so there are very few places planes can go in American airspace where our radar can’t reach.

Anchorage Center in Alaska. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Anchorage Center in Alaska. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

However, as radar tracking requires ground stations and line-of-sight, almost all of the ocean is completely devoid of radar coverage — which begs the question: How do air traffic controllers keep airplanes separated from each other during transoceanic flights?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The answer is a method called “non-radar separation.” It’s one of the most fundamental types of enroute air traffic control and is also one of the first things taught at the ATC academy — and it occurs far from airports.

There are three basic ways to separate aircraft, pertaining to the three dimensions in which aircraft operate — vertical, lateral and longitudinal.

The three axes of flight. Image courtesy of Florida International University.
The three axes of flight. Image courtesy of Florida International University.

Vertical separation: Two airplanes at two different altitudes are always separated.

Lateral separation: Two airplanes on two parallel routes that never intersect will maintain separation.

Longitudinal separation: Two airplanes following the same route at the same altitude are ensured separation when they maintain exclusive speeds, much like one car following another on a highway.

ATC always separates aircraft via a combination of these three types of separation, with or without radar. However, their application in a non-radar environment becomes much less precise — but in a way, much more crucial.

The white lines are a depiction of the eastbound NAT Tracks on September 30th, 2015, with a high altitude weather information overlay. Image courtesy of Google Flight Weather.
The white lines are a depiction of the eastbound NAT Tracks on September 30th, 2015, with a high altitude weather information overlay. Image courtesy of Google Flight Weather.

There are several groups of airways — or “tracks,” as they’re called in traffic control — that pass over the ocean and are grouped like multi-lane interstates. For the sake of simplicity, let’s take a look at one of the most popular and heavily trafficked group of oceanic tracks, known as the North Atlantic Tracks — or the NAT Tracks— which exist between North America and Europe, in either direction.

Flights leave North America for Europe in the late afternoon or evening, arriving early in the morning. Flights leave Europe in the late morning or early afternoon, and due to the time change, arrive in North America only a few hours later. Based on prevailing winds, the actual location of the NAT Tracks along these transoceanic routes change twice a day in order to minimize headwinds, maximize tailwinds and enable passengers to make flight connections.

Prior to departure, airline dispatch personnel responsible for these transoceanic routes check the current position of the NAT Tracks and take into account each flight destination, as well as the aircraft’s type, weight and planned speed. They then submit a request to enter a specific track at a certain time. Their requests are submitted to one of two air traffic control centers — Gander Center in Newfoundland, Canada or Shanwick Center in Ayrshire, Scotland — which are responsible for compiling and organizing these requests in order to assign standard separation of aircraft along the tracks.

However, ATC can’t use radar to track the position of aircraft along these transoceanic routes — so how do they manage to maintain safe separation between aircraft?

Check out this video from NATS.aero to see how these NAT Tracks appear in airspace:

As you can see, there are multiple NAT Tracks. Each has its own entry and exit points and each has a lateral separation of at least 50 miles. These tracks are generally usable between 29,000-41,000 feet. Using the standard enroute vertical separation of 1,000 feet, this spacing provides 13 different altitude strata per track.

While standard en route longitudinal separation in a radar environment is only five miles, the imprecision because of the lack of radar creates the need to keep aircraft on the same route and at the same altitude separated by 10 minutes of flying time. Based on the typical cruising speed of your average airliner, 10 minutes equates to around 80-90 miles of longitudinal separation.

Image courtesy of the International Virtual Aviation Organization.
Image courtesy of the International Virtual Aviation Organization.

While transoceanic radar coverage is sparse, communication is still required, usually by means of long-range, high-frequency radio or satellite data link. Along each of the NAT Tracks, there are several mandatory reporting points at which pilots must contact one of the oceanic ATC centers (Gander or Shanwick) and check-in to report their position and their estimated time at the next fix on their route. ATC uses these position reports to ensure the assigned speeds of all airborne craft along a given track are working, keeping them at least 10 minutes apart and making adjustments if necessary.

Like radar controllers, oceanic controllers must transpose data from a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional mental model, maintaining complete situational awareness to ensure the separation of aircraft traversing the tracks — even in the case of pilot deviations from their flight course, altitude or speed due to bad weather or a mechanical problem. When a flight eventually reenters an area of radar coverage, then radar is once again used to guide the plane to a safe landing.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Keep in mind this is but one example of the numerous oceanic route structures that exist over every ocean across the entire world. In the US, the New York Center in Ronkonkoma, New York controls our portion of the Atlantic Ocean, while Oakland Center in Fremont, California is responsible for our share of the Pacific.

Like all other controllers, oceanic controllers play an important role in managing the safe and expeditious flow of traffic through their portion of the world airspace system. With each of us playing our part, together we can take you quite literally to the other side of the world and back.

View on thepointsguy.com  [via Flipboard]

Watch The 7 scariest airport runway landings in the world

st-maarten-airport-planeBy Yoni Heisler for bgr Over the past few weeks, we’ve highlighted a number of videos depicting airplanes taking off at breakneck speed and astounding angles. From an F-16 Fighter Jet climbing 15,000 feet in 20 seconds to a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner that can take off at an almost 90 degree angle, you’ve probably had your fill of takeoffs, for now.

Remember the video of that insane Boeing 777 landing in the middle of a 75MPH windstorm? Well today, on this lazy Friday, we thought we’d flip the script and show you some of the more unique airport runways around the world that typically make for harrowing landings. From the ridiculously dangerous and short runway at the Courchevel Altiport in the French Alps to the famous Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten, you might want to stay grounded for a while after watching these.

1. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

The video below shows a KLM 777-300ER making its final approach and landing at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport after some absolutely horrifying pitching and rolling.

You almost get the impression the plane might not be able to land safely, and that it’ll crash right on the runway, but thankfully that wasn’t not the case. Cool heads and experience helped these pilots make an impressive landing in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.

Whether you’re afraid of flying or not, you have to watch this clip. After all, these pilots deserve praise for their remarkable landing.

2. Princess Juliana International Airport

Without question, have to start with Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten. This airport runway lies eerily close to a tourist friendly beach and is practically famous for planes approaching at altitudes so low that beachgoers either want to run for cover or stay put and experience the rush of being abnormally close to a plane flying overhead.

Imagine catching a few rays on the beach and being greeted by this monster steadily approaching from off in the distance.

3. Lukla Airport1 The 6 scariest airport runway landings in the world

Located in Nepal, the Lukla Airport was once voted by the History Channel as the most extreme airport in the world. Known more widely as the airport one flies into before trekking up Mt. Everest, the Lukla Airport runway is nestled between a mountain on one end and a 1,000 foot drop into a valley on the other. And as if that weren’t terrifying enough, the entire runway is only 1,729 ft long.

4. Gustaf III Airport2 The 6 scariest airport runway landings in the world

Also known as the St. Jean Airport, the runway at this airport on St. Barts Island is not only narrow, but planes coming in for a landing have to be careful as to not hit a sloping hillside upon approaching. At the same time, hitting the runway too late might leave your plane in the water.


And here’s what it looks like from the pilot’s perspective.

5. Courchevel Altiport

Nestled in the French Alps, the runway here is built into the side of a mountain and is assuredly not for the faint of heart. Not only does the runway slope upwards with a gradient of 18.6%, it’s also extremely short, measuring in at just 1,762 feet. Needless to say, there’s not much room for error when landing here.

6. Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport3 The 6 scariest airport runway landings in the world

Tucked away in the Caribbean island of Saba, the Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport has the shortest commercial runway in the world, checking in at just 1,299 feet.

7. Gibraltar International Airport4 The 6 scariest airport runway landings in the world

This runway, located in the British territory of Gibraltar, is surrounded by water at both ends. And oh yes, residential buildings, civilian traffic, and the Rock of Gibraltar to the sides. Largely considered one of the scariest runways on which to land and take off, the runway at Gibraltar International Airport has the unique distinction of actually running across a four lane city highway.

Man attempts to steal jet at Texas airport, police say

Man attempts to steal jet at Texas airport, police sayDALLAS:  A man with a history of mental health issues crashed his vehicle through the security gate of a runway at Waco Regional Airport on Thursday and tried to steal a Learjet, police said.

The unidentified man was armed with a stick and believed to be under the influence of narcotics when he tried to remove the tire chocks from around the landing gear and board the jet belonging to a local business, Waco Police said in a statement.  The central Texas airport also offers American Airlines flights to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
1 Man attempts to steal jet at Texas airport, police say
An off-duty officer working airport security approached the man, who put up a struggle despite being stunned several times with a Taser, according to police. The suspect was eventually restrained with the help of airline employees and taken to a nearby hospital for a mental health evaluation. He will face charges of criminal trespass, attempted theft, criminal mischief and resisting arrest, police said.

Waco Police said it notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Transportation Security Administration, which may file additional charges.

Beware the 6 Dirtiest, Most Germ-Ridden Places in an Airplane and Airport

Beware the 6 Dirtiest, Most Germ-Ridden Places in an Airplane and Airport
Beware the 6 Dirtiest, Most Germ-Ridden Places in an Airplane and Airport

BY PETER ECONOMY  Guess what? The places on an airplane with the most germs aren’t where you might expect them to be.

It’s probably no big surprise that germs, bacteria, viruses, and other nasty bugs love to hang out in the places that we humans (and our animal friends) like to frequent. Not only that, but once they find a place they really like, they have a tendency to multiply like crazy. For example, some bacteria have the ability to double in quantity every 20 minutes. This can turn a relatively clean surface into a disease-ridden, bacterial soup in less than a day.

Despite the efforts of airlines to clean all the nasty stuff out of the interior of their airplanes, they usually give a higher priority to turning a flight and keeping it on schedule than to making sure every surface you’ll encounter is as clean and sanitized as it could be. Every once in a while, I’ll run across someone’s half-eaten lunch in the magazine holder in front of me, or a semi-dried spilled drink or sauce on the tray table.

Travelmath recently pulled together a list of the dirtiest places on an airplane and in an airport. The good news is that at least one of the places you probably thought was the worst is actually among the best. However, the bad news is that at least one of the locations you probably thought was the best is actually among the worst. And none of them are exactly great.

The 4 Dirtiest Places on Airplanes

  1. table (2,155 colony-forming units (CFU)/sq.in)
  2. Overhead air vent (285 CFU/sq.in.)
  3. Lavatory flush button (265 CFU/sq.in.)
  4. Seatbelt buckle(230 CFU/sq.in.)

The 2 Dirtiest Places in Airports

  1. Drinking fountain button (1,240 CFU/sq.in.)
  2. Bathroom stall lock (70 CFU/sq.in.)

For comparison purposes, here are the bacterial counts that you can expect to find on a variety of common household items, from worst to best:

  • Pet bowl (306,000 CFU/sq.in.)
  • Pet toy (19,000 CFU/sq.in.)
  • Kitchen countertop (361 CFU/sq.in.)
  • Home toilet seat (172 CFU/sq.in.)
  • Mobile phone (27 CFU/sq.in.)
  • Money (5 CFU/sq.in.)

Oh–and there was one more bit of good news in the Travelmath results–none of the airplane or airport samples showed the presence of the particularly deadly E. coli bacteria.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport

On any given day Sechelt Airport, on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, is a typical local aerodrome found in many small towns across the country. Small private planes come and go but overall a quiet place where, at times, Canada Geese can be seen feeding on grass along the runway edges. However, on several occasions each year, the mild mannered aerodrome unleashes its wild side. Screaming engines and clouds of burning rubber fill the air as members of the Sunshine Coast Drag Racing Association (SCDRA) take over the runway to compete head to head for local glory in their street cars or high octane hot rods.

Photos & Post by Andy Clark for The Globe and Mail

1 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport

2 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport 3 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport 4 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport 5 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport 6 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport 7 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport 8 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport 9 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport 10 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport 11 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport 12 Drag races take over the runway at BC's Sechelt Airport

 

Thee post originally appear The Globe and Mail ….. on Follow The Globe and Mail on Twitter: @GlobeBC